The Steelers and Their Missing Rings: Top 10 Teams in Franchise History to Not Win a Title (10-6)
I recently watched a few of “The America’s Game: Missing Rings” episodes on Hulu, and it got me thinking about some of the great Steelers teams never won a title, yet came ever so close. With that in mind, I decided to construct a list of what I believe are the Top 10 Steelers teams which have “Missing Rings,” and give a short description and discussion on why I chose them. I will be splitting the countdown up into two days worth of posts, so today I will start with teams 10-6 today and finish with teams 5-1 tomorrow:
10. 1982 Steelers
(6-3) Strike-Shortened Season
Lost in Conference Playoff 1st Round to San Diego
The 1982 strike-shortened season was sort of “The Last Hurrah” for many of the ’70’s Steelers. 1982 was also special because it marked the franchise’s 50th Anniversary, the first season the Steelers’ Defense employed a 3-4 Front, and it marked the final “full” season of Terry Bradshaw’s great career.
Speaking of Bradshaw, when he was “on” that season, there was little teams could do to stop him as he tied for the League lead with 17 TD passes during the 9 game season. In addition, Bradshaw also led the League as 7.1% of his completions went for Passing TD’s that season as the Steelers enjoyed a solid season on the Offensive side of the ball.
Running Back Franco Harris also had himself a decent season as his career with the Black & Gold was winding down, placed 9th in the League in Rushing Yards (604) and Yards Per Carry (4.3), and even led the team in receptions with 31. Overall, the Steelers ranked 8th in the League in Rushing Yards and averaged 131.9 Yards Per Game as Harris and Frank Pollard led the way behind the blocking of Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer Mike Webster and member of the franchise’s 75th Anniversary squad, Tackle Larry Brown. As for the passing game, future Hall of Famer John Stallworth earned himself a Pro Bowl berth as he hauled in 27 Passes for 441 Yards and 7 TD’s, and proved to be Pittsburgh’s most potent threat at the Wide Receiver position.
While the once dominant “Steel Curtain” Defense was collectively continued to age, the top veterans still performed at a high level in 1982. Donnie Shell and Jack Lambert were named 1st Team All-Pros and Defensive Back Dwayne Woodruff tied with Shell for the team lead with 5 INT’s. Holdovers from the 1970’s, Defensive Linemen Gary Dunn and Tom Beasley also had fine years getting to the Quarterback (6.0 Sacks apiece), as the Steelers employed a 3-4 Defensive scheme for the first time in their team history. For the year, Pittsburgh finished 4th in Total Points Allowed, 1st in Rushing Yards Allowed, and only allowed one 100 Yard rusher the entire 9-game season (Joe Cribbs, Buffalo).
The Steelers started off 1982 hot as they beat Dallas (36-28) and then defending A.F.C. Champion Cincinnati (26-20) in successive Weeks. Bradshaw threw for 6 Touchdowns combined in both games including the game-winner in Overtime to defeat the Bengals at Three Rivers Stadium. In spite of Pittsburgh’s hot start, there was no football to be played until late November, and the Steelers looked a tad inconsistent over the final two months.
During the final 7 contests the Steelers looked good (Large Margin Wins over Houston, New England, Cleveland, and Kansas City) and also not so good (Shutout Losses to Buffalo and Seattle). Nevertheless, the Steelers finished with a 6-3 record, and in the ’82 8-team per Conference Playoff format were given the #4 seed and scheduled to play San Diego at Three Rivers Stadium in the first Round of the postseason.
Sadly for the Steelers, they gave up a 28-17 lead in the 4th Quarter, and Pittsburgh was sent home for the rest of the winter. After the 1982 season ended, the Steelers saw Lynn Swann and Jack Ham retire, and would eventually see players like Bradshaw (who only played in 1 game in 1983), Harris, Lambert, and Mel Blount leave in the near future. Even though Pittsburgh made the Playoffs in 1983 and 1984, 1982 and it’s Playoff format would have given this team a much better shot at winning, and the Steelers as a team stacked up against the rest of their postseason foes much better in 1982 than they did in 1983 and 1984. Alternate history and scenarios aside, the Chargers ended Pittsburgh’s season in 1982, and Pittsburgh would not play another postseason game at home for another decade.
9. 1992 Steelers
Lost in Divisional Playoff Game against Buffalo (24-3)
I remember the 1992 Steelers not having many high expectations. They had a new Coach for the first time since the late ’60’s (Bill Cowher), A.F.C. Central rival Houston was a heavy favorite to go to/win the Super Bowl, and the Steelers had a Quarterback controversy brewed between Bubby Brister and Neil O’Donnell. However, there were a few things which many did not account for in 1992.
First, there was the fact that there was quite a bit of young talent on the roster left over from the Noll years, the Offensive Line was a solid bunch, the Defense under Dom Capers was primed to explode, and Running Back Barry Foster would have a season for the ages that many outside of Pittsburgh do not usually remember.
In 1992, the Steelers’ Offense ran on the strength of Barry Foster. That season, Foster led the AFC in Rushing Yards with 1,690 and scored 11 TD’s on the ground. Foster was even a potent pass-catching threat, and finished second on the team in Receptions with 36. Foster, who was named 1st Team All-Pro that year, set the then-team record for Yards from Scrimmage in a season with 2,034, made the Pro Bowl, and tied an N.F.L. record for the most 100 Yard Rushing Games in a season with 12.
Quarterback Neil O’Donnell made his first and only Pro Bowl in his second season as a starter and threw for 2,283 Yards and 13 TD’s in 12 games as a starter. The Wide Receiver trio of Jeff Graham (49 Catches for 711 Yards and 1 TD), Ernie Mills (30 Catches for 383 Yards and 3 TD’s), and Dwight Stone (34 Catches for 501 Yards and 3 TD’s) were O’Donnell’s (and Brister’s) top receiving threats in 1992. Tight Ends Adrian Cooper and Eric Green (who was suspended during that season for violating the League’s drug policy) chipped in with 5 total receiving Touchdowns as well, and Fullbacks Merril Hoge and Leroy Thompson contributed a total of 50 Catches for 509 Yards and 1 Touchdown through the air to help O’Donnell and Brister when they subbed for Foster in 1992.
The Defense under new Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers flourished as “Blitzburgh” was beginning to form. Linebackers Hardy Nickerson, Pro Bowler Greg Lloyd, Jerrol Williams, and David Little all wreaked havoc in Capers’ Linebacker-friendly scheme and terrorized Quarterbacks and Offenses as a whole. The Defensive Line led by Donald Evans and Gerald Williams stuffed the run and even chipped in some Sacks (3.0 apiece). And the Secondary, led by 1st Team All-Pro Cornerback Rod Woodson had yet another awesome year, as Carnell Lake, D.J. Johnson, Larry Griffen Rookie Safety Darren Perry all helped out a club which had a +11 Turnover margin on the season.
The Steelers shocked quite a few people when they went 3-0 out of the gate, including an impressive win over Houston in the Astrodome on Opening Weekend. Despite dropping their next two games, the Steelers quickly rebounded and won their next three to sit at 6-2 at the midway point in the season. The highlight of their second 3-game win streak was a 21-20 victory over the Oilers at Three Rivers in the teams’ second meeting. The win gave the Steelers control of the A.F.C. Central and a full head of steam as they geared up for the second half of the season. Pittsburgh finished the rest of the season 5-3 despite losing O’Donnell for four weeks down the stretch to an injury. Former starter Bubby Brister filled in adequately and went 2-2 during O’Donnell’s absence as Pittsburgh secured the #1 seed in the A.F.C., but O’Donnell was given the green light to start the Steelers’ first Home Postseason game since 1982 against Buffalo.
Despite losing at home in the Divisional Round 24-3, and being bested by the veteran Bills who would go on to appear in their 3rd straight Super Bowl, 1992 was an extremely important year for the franchise. The two biggest reasons were A) The gap from Noll to the future looked to have been adequately bridged, and B) The franchise finally appeared to be headed in the right direction after the hum-drum decade of the 1980’s. While they may not have won, this season set the wheels in motion for another five straight postseason appearances by the franchise.
8. 1997 Steelers
Lost in Conference Championship Game against Denver (24-21)
If I had to pick a “favorite” Steelers team from my child-hood it would be the 1997 group. Were they overly dominant on either side of the football? No. Did they make numerous mistakes? Absolutely. Were they pretty to watch at times? Nope. But you know what? They were one very important thing: Exciting. And the 1997 Steelers came within a few mistakes from defying the odds and winning a title that season.
1997 marked the Kordell Stewart’s first season as a full-time starting Quarterback, and he was a human highlight film so many times that year (like accounting for all 5 Touchdowns in the Week 15 win against Denver). Statistically, Stewart was incredible in 1997 as Kordell went 236 for 440, passed for 3,020 Yards, 21 Touchdowns, and added 476 Yards Rushing with 11 Touchdowns to boot. Stewart had some solid pass-catchers at his disposal though, as Yancey Thigpen was the go-to-guy in 1997. In Thigpen’s Pro Bowl contact year he made 79 Catches for 1,398 Yards an 7 TD’s. While Charles Johnson (46 Catches, 568 Yards, and 2 TD’s), Courtney Hawkins (45 Catches, 555 Yards, 3 TD’s), and Tight End Mark Bruener (6 Touchdown Catches) all had solid seasons for Pittsburgh, the Steelers were still a running team, and Jerome Bettis had the season of his career in 1997.
In a season which the Steelers led the N.F.L. in Rushing Attempts and Yards, Bettis set career highs with 1,665 Yards and 375 Carries behind a stout Offensive Line which was anchored by Future Hall of Fame Center Dermontti Dawson. During the regular season, “The Bus” scored 9 Touchdowns total (7 Rush, 2 Receiving), and ran for 111.0 Yards Per Game over his 15 regular season contests. Whether it was his rumble on a shovel pass for a Touchdown in Overtime against Jacksonville for the Division lead in Week 8, or when he scored the game winner of his 3 Touchdowns in 142 Yards Rushing performance against the Cardinals in Arizona for another Overtime win, Bettis was clutch for his team when he was needed most.
While they were a bit more porous in 1997 (finished 11th in Total Points), the Steelers Defense still proved to be quite tough tin 1997, and Carnell Lake proved to be the super-star. Lake had a season for the ages as he played both his Strong Safety spot and filled in at Cornerback. In ’97, Lake led the team in Sacks (6.0), notched 60 Tackles, had 2 Forced Fumbles, Returned a Fumble for a Score in a thrilling Week 4 victory over Indianapolis, and Picked Off 3 Passes to earn 1st Team All-Pro honors. The rest of the Defense had a nice season as well as the front three of Pro Bowler Joel Steed, Kevin Henry, and Nolan Harrison started a combined 48 games, and 1st Team All-Pro Linebacker Levon Kirkland (126 Tackles) and Earl Holmes (96 Tackles) were tackling machines on the inside for Pittsburgh as the Steelers led the League in Fewest Rushing Yards and Touchdowns allowed.
Despite starting 1-2 (and Bill Cowher almost tackling Jaguar player Chris Hudson on Monday Night Football), the Steelers came back and won 10 of their next 12 games, and won many in thrilling fashion. Whether it was coming back from 21 down in Baltimore in Week 6, 10 down the following week against the Colts, the aforementioned Over Time wins against the Jaguars and Cardinals, 14 down at home against Denver, or winning in Over Time against New England to sew up the #2 seed in the A.F.C., this Steelers team refused to quit and finished the year with an 11-5 record.
After they won a sloppy yet heartstopping game 7-6 over New England in the Divisional Round, the Steelers squared off against Denver for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh faltered in the final two minutes of the 1st Half and could not overcome turnovers and John Elway as they lost the game 24-21. Of all the Steelers’ Playoff losses which I remember, the one to Denver at Three Rivers one hurts the most and will hurt the most until my dying day. For a full explanation click on these links here and here. The 1997 team was one of just raw excitement because you could never count the team out of any game. So many late-game comebacks, and Kordell Stewart was the toast of the N.F.L. that entire year. As sad as the ending was, I will always remember how fun this team was to watch, and how talented they were.